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Free to Teach educators help new generations learn why 9/11 still matters

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Like most people old enough to remember the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Keith Williams recalls exactly what he was doing when the planes hit the Twin Towers: he was in class, teaching. But he also remembers feeling a grim sense of anticipation as he watched the horrific footage unfold. 

As someone who had been doing wilderness search and rescue since high school, Keith knew trained rescuers of all kinds would be called in to supplement recovery efforts in an overwhelmed New York City. 

Free to Teach Director Keith Williams (fifth from left) with fellow 9/11 rescuers in 2001.

He was right.

“Every hour that ticks by in search and rescue, this will become less of a rescue and more of a recovery operation,” Keith explained. 

By Sept. 16, Keith was with a team on Staten Island, sifting through mountains of debris that had been collected at Ground Zero. He and his team were more used to finding lost Boy Scouts and performing cave rescues than working in an urban environment, but New York needed all the help it could get. He spent two weeks looking for personal effects, flight recorders—and human remains.

Some poignant items his team found are etched in his memory: a picture of a toddler’s birthday party nearby a piece of human bone. And at 2 a.m. one night, finding a New York Police Department officer’s utility belt, which officers at the dump site circled in hushed respect for its lost owner. 

A fire truck that got caught in the collapsing buildings on 9/11. (Photo from Keith Williams)

Keith also remembers how the city came together as a community. He recalls a lone food truck appearing at the secure search site around 2 a.m. one night, and its roughly 20-year-old driver handing out free pizza to rescuers. An 18-wheeler also appeared one day, carrying 10,000 pounds of dog food for the site’s canine units.

FTT member and math educator Katy Phillips also remembers being in Manhattan on the morning of 9/11—in a building near the Twin Towers. She talks to students about her experience and escape every year, but said this year remembering was “particularly tough.”

“I think it’s partially because for so many of the families who lost loved ones, we see that their grief and anger has not dissipated,” she explained. “The post 9/11 newborns are going to college with only the ghost of a parent they never knew, and a whole new wave of victims is emerging—those first responders who worked so tirelessly in the years that followed so that others may find comfort and their city could rebuild…only to now have their health destroyed.”

Katy also feels a sense of loss over the unified spirit the country had following 9/11—something that’s lacking today. 

This year, Keith spoke to 9th-graders at the high school where he taught until 2018. Like Katy, he also thinks it’s worth teaching new generations about the impact of 9/11 and what it meant both for America, and for understanding human nature.

“There is evil in the world but there is also a lot of good,” he said. “We can’t be dismissive of either. That’s the lesson of 9/11—we are not one or the other, we are both.”

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